The Last Hike

 
DANGER

As we pulled into the parking area for the last hike of our vacation, most cars were leaving. It was 75 degrees at 8am and the day would only get hotter – Julie and I love the heat but it can be dangerous hiking in the desert in midday. We’re experienced and carry enough water or at least we think so. When we get back to the car with the last drops in the the last bottle it makes us think we cut it a little close.

There is a difference between risk and foolishness. Foolishness would be attempting a hike like this without the proper preparation, without knowing and respecting our own abilities. I see so many examples of bad preparation in daily life that it makes me wonder why people don’t approach such difficult and dangerous feats such as retirement planning with as much care as they would a hike in the desert.

COMFORT

The temperature was expected to reach 90 degrees but we’ve hiked on hotter days. The trail would be in direct sunlight the entire way there and back. The first mile would only get us as far as a picnic area used by people walking their dogs or looking for a spectacular lunch spot without much hiking effort. Once past the picnic area we head down into a wash – a dry, sandy riverbed that, during rains, can fill with water running off the mountains. After a mile or so in the wash we reach the beginning of the trail that will take us up and up and up and over until we reach an oasis.

This early part of the hike seems quite easy and can lull an inexperienced hiker into a false sense of confidence that may lead to disaster later if they push beyond their ability. People have needed to be rescued from this area because they ran out of water, misjudged the difficulty, overestimated their ability or all of the above. Life seems easy sometimes too and similarly lulls many people into feeling they can afford more than they really can or that they have more time than they actually have.

STRUGGLE

As the trail heads up we are at 117 feet above sea level and will climb to 2,331 feet in about 2.5 miles, a steep climb. The steepest parts are at the beginning with lots of switchbacks, winding sections of trail meant to alleviate the need to climb straight up. We stop often to admire the scenery, catch our breath, and drink water or Gatorade. When we begin moving again the familiar crunch, crunch, crunch of sand and rock beneath our feet is one of the only sounds we hear.

As we begin our adult lives, our careers, it sometimes seems like a slow climb to nowhere, twisting and turning from one job, one responsibility to another. It’s not a race but some of us linger a bit too long in one place as the sun sucks us dry. We can feel alone sometimes, the sound of our effort the only sound we hear.

DETERMINATION

On our entire hike we only see five people, four of which were going in the opposite direction back to their cars to get out of the heat, we continue on.

Persistence and perseverance may be good traits to have as we fight heat and fatigue, challenging ourselves, but we may be setting ourselves up for disaster. Knowing the difference between persistence and foolishness can mean the difference between life and death. In life, persistence and perseverance are also useful traits but maybe they keep you in a bad situation longer than you need to be, or blind you to a better option. Sometimes it’s not only acceptable but smart to stop, turn around and even quit.

PERCEPTION

Looking up, the landscape seems quite stark and barren but there is a surprising amount of greenery interspersed in the brown rocks. Cacti are blooming and the bright purple and yellow pops out at you, the red tips of the blooming ocotillo are another sign of survival in this harsh environment. Yellow flowers on the creosote bush brighten the brown tones of dirt and dust. The aroma as you pass the creosote bush is delightful invoking memories of camp fires and BBQ.

The desert is full of life as plants and animals uniquely suited to the extremes of heat and dryness not only survive but thrive. What one person views as an impossible situation, a mountain of debt they can’t emerge from, a marriage they can’t stay in, a job they can’t stand, others see or search for opportunity. Willing to give up enough lifestyle some among us will get out from under the debt, with enough confidence in themselves some will leave the bad marriage, with determination and drive some will find a new job or new career. In the desert that their life has become they find a way to survive and then they can thrive.

THE DESTINATION IS NOT THE END

Finally our destination emerges in the distance as we round one last peak and see the palm trees in the oasis. Though we can see it, there is still more hiking to be done. The reward will be shade from the sun and a cool place to eat our lunch. The goal however is not the end of the journey as we have to turn around and make our way back to our car. The time we spend in the oasis is a pleasure but there is still work to be done. We have managed our resources accordingly and didn’t drink more than half of our water supply and conserved enough energy for the return trip.

Too many people think of a goal as an end when it’s really only the middle. The goal of a new job or promotion is followed by more work, the goal of getting out of debt is of no use if you simply fall back into the old habits that got you into the debt to begin with. Once a goal is reached a new one is set – that’s called progress. I learn something new about progress on each hike, that the journey itself is rewarding, that there’s always something beautiful, colorful, and inspiring if you just look for it, that a reprieve is usually temporary and that struggle is a part of the trip, and that goals are simply steps along the route to success.


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The Three Month Test

 
While my current job is considered white collar, I’ve worked my way up to this position including seven years as a union member. Until actually joining a union I was a big supporter of the concept. I was, however, completely unsatisfied with the union experience. In 1998 the company I worked for locked my union out for 11 weeks.

Locked OutJulie and I lived together, she had a good job so we weren’t too concerned with the lack of income. But without knowing how long this would last or even if I’d have a job after it was all over, we decided to plan for the worst.

You can’t always live in fear that the worst will happen but you can’t live as if nothing bad will ever happen either. You have to find balance between being prepared and enjoying life. At the time of the lockout I decided to test my will. I decided that other than fixed costs such as my mortgage and utilities, I wouldn’t spend any money on discretionary items. That meant no eating out, no take-out, no movies or even video rentals (it was a long time ago). The lockout occurred just as winter was beginning and I had recently begun skiing, but until we were allowed back to work, there would be no skiing for me. I didn’t buy any music or take any trips. I didn’t spend money on anything unless I absolutely had to. This was not the easiest thing to do, to deny myself the little pleasures in life, especially with all the free time I had. 

Over those 11 weeks, almost three months, I lost over $13,000 in income but when it was over and we returned to work, my bank accounts were lower by only $4,000. By the end of the lockout one co-worker declared bankruptcy and others were precariously close to calamity. I also know people who counted on the union winning an arbitration award that would give us back pay, but that never happened, and those who expected back pay were in much worse shape than those who assumed the money would never come.

The greatest lesson from this event was that I realized that I could live much farther below my means, that a sudden shock to my income such as a job loss, wouldn’t be the end of the world. Can you say the same thing?

If you’re serious about being prepared for the future, serious about doing what it takes to get much farther ahead in life, then you have to make a commitment to do whatever is necessary. You can get rich no matter what your income but the less income you have the more you’ll have to do. Keeping track of your income and expenses is crucial, spending less than you earn is an absolute requirement. Discipline can be learned.

I found that the three months I was locked out, and my subsequent choice to eliminate discretionary spending, gave me the discipline I needed to really concentrate on building wealth. I call this time my three month test and I suggest that you might want to try the same thing.Days pass

That’s right I’m asking you to stop spending money on anything other than essential items for three months. You obviously have to pay for your mortgage or rent, your utilities, groceries, and other necessities, but if you’re serious then you have to give up everything else for three months.

Ok. I’ll stop here and give you permission to do a trial run. Three months might be too much to ask and could just set you up for failure, but how about three weeks? Are you willing to try this out for three weeks to see if you have what it takes to really build wealth?

The rules are fairly simple. You can keep the services you currently have like cable, cell phone or magazine subscriptions. You can keep any recurring bills but you can’t upgrade those services like the cable, for example. You can’t add any channels, subscribe to any new websites, magazines or newspapers.

This test is not meant to see if you can live like Scrooge but it’s also not meant to be easy. You’ve seen in the news the low paid worker who dies leaving behind millions of dollars? Well how do you think they got all that? Ok, you’re right, they probably lived like misers but there can be a balance if you just try. After all, what good did that money do them now that they’re dead?

This test might crimp your social life but that’s the challenge. How can you still enjoy yourself for less money? That’s the key to the test. Once you see that you can do it, you’ll think twice before getting together with friends at a bar and instead invite them over to your place where the alcohol and food costs significantly less.

If you choose to take this test, and treat it seriously, you can find out a lot about your spending habits. You’ll see how much that coffee at Starbucks is really costing you. You’ll notice that stopping to get a donut on your way to work is a significant amount of money (and fat) over even three weeks. Oh yeah did I mention the other benefit? You might lose weight (if that’s something you want) since you’ll be either eating at home or not eating because even a quick stop at McDonalds is out the question for those three weeks.

Do you have what it takes to commit to a better future? Are you up to the challenge? I did it because I felt the pressure of not having an income for an unknown period of time but it turned out to be a great test. Now it’s your turn – you can do it.


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